With the annual flu season comes advice for people to get vaccinated. But not everyone does, and some end up regretting that decision. While the race is on to find a COVID-19 vaccine, researchers confirm that the seasonal flu shot, already available, could prevent some flu-related complications.

Most people recover from the flu within 2 weeks without medical intervention. But those in high-risk populations, including adults over 65 and children 2 years and younger, can benefit from a flu vaccination as they are more vulnerable to complications from the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu can also worsen chronic health problems. People with congestive heart failure are also at risk, but many studies have shown that flu vaccines can provide this population with some protection from heart-related complications.

A 2013 report that reviewed 5 studies showed people with the most active heart disease benefited the most from the vaccine. A larger 2019 study out of Denmark showed that heart failure patients who got at least one vaccination over a multi-year span, saw their risk of dying from a cardiovascular event, or any other event, drop by 18%. And the percentage rose for patients who got more than one vaccination.

Even if you don't have other pre-existing conditions, your chance of having a stroke or heart attack increases with severe influenza infection.

High-risk Groups Are Under-Vaccinated

Although physicians are aware that flu vaccines help reduce the risk of flu-related complications, the vaccination rate remains low among high-risk groups. A study presented at the American Heart Association’s annual conference this past July highlighted that high-risk groups in the United States continue to have a low rate of vaccination.

“These groups should have the highest vaccination rates because they are the most at risk; however, our findings show the opposite – flu vaccinations are under-utilized," said lead author Roshni A. Mandania, MD, of the Texas Tech University Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, in a press release. She and other researchers examined a large database of 7 million hospitalized patients, finding that only 168,325 had received the flu vaccine.

Vaccinated Adults Above 50 Show Health Benefits

The researchers compared people younger and older than 50 years of age. They discovered that 15% of people younger than 50 who did not have any ailments had been vaccinated. This paled in comparison to the fewer than 2% of adults over 50 who were vaccinated.

When looking at the benefit of the flu vaccine on heart health alone, the researchers found a 28% lower risk of heart attack and an 85% lower risk on cardiac arrest. They also found a 47% lower risk of transient ischemic attacks (TIA), also called mini-strokes. “The results we found are staggering," Mandania said. "It’s hard to ignore the positive effect the flu vaccine can have on serious cardiac complications. Some people don’t view flu vaccinations as necessary or important, and many may face barriers accessing healthcare including receiving the flu vaccine.”

The Take-Away

The CDC explains on its website that though the influenza virus usually starts circulating in the U.S. in October, it is most active from December to February, sometimes lasting until May. People are encouraged to get their flu shot in September or October, although it is usually available until January.

In light of the COVID-19 disease spread, the CDC is in talks with healthcare providers and government officials at the national and local level to create contingency plans offering vaccination against the flu.